Saturday, May 15, 2010

SFIFF53: ROGER EBERT TRIBUTE

Roger Ebert was the distinguished recipient of the Mel Novikoff Award at this year's edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF53). The presiding theme that ran throughout the celebratory evening held at San Francisco's historic Castro Theatre was that—at a time when (as Jason Sanders states it in his tribute essay) "the future of film criticism remains a real question"—Ebert has proven by example that film criticism's role in championing the work of new filmmakers has kickstarted many a career and encouraged others to hone their craft. To prove that point, the San Francisco Film Society invited four guests whose directorial careers have been personally encouraged by Ebert to share their thoughts: Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, Henry & June), Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line), Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Juno) and Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World, Crumb).

Letter From Tilda Swinton

One guest who had been invited but was unable to attend due to a conflict in her filming schedule was festival favorite Tilda Swinton, whose brave performance in Erick Zonca's Julia was singled out by Ebert for reconsideration. In lieu of attendance, Swinton forwarded a letter to Ebert, which Program Director Rachel Rosen read to the audience:

"Dear Roger: I cannot tell you how sad I am to miss out on our San Francisco moment. I am—as my daughter would describe her dog when it pines—'pretty low to the ground' about the whole thing. Were it not that I'm in Connecticut shooting what I sincerely hope is a great film with
Lynne Ramsay, and were there flights that existed that could get me there and back between the end of a Friday night shoot and an early call on Monday without our company suffering one collective heart attack, you know I would be there.

"You do me and Julia such great honor. Such a beloved film for me and all those who made it. Your support has kept us warm over the past months. The witness you provide for this kind of work is incalculably valuable to all filmmakers working outside the frame of studio movie's muscle and your inexhaustible passion as a film fan means everything. Tilda."

Terry Zwigoff

Introducing Terry Zwigoff as a "director who makes a specialty of literate antisocial oddballs", Rachel Rosen qualified: "that he does it with comedy takes more guts than doing it in tragedy."

"I make films about 'antisocial oddballs'?" Zwigoff countered behind the podium. "I guess that's fair. You write about what you know. I'm actually so antisocial myself these days I find it very difficult to watch a film in a theater among other people. I'm not saying that to be self-serving; it's just the truth. I feel very uncomfortable and I prefer, these days, to watch films at home, especially comedies. I know Roger prefers that communal audience experience—he's a much more well-adjusted, sane person—but, I really can't stand it when I go to a film and the audience starts laughing at something I don't find funny and when they don't laugh at something I do find funny. It's a very alienating experience for me and I'm alienated enough, so.... But whenever I watch a film at home, I got into this habit of wanting to talk or think about it with somebody and, of course, the guy I always choose to think about is Mr. Ebert. I can go to the computer and hope that he has written a review of what I've just watched. Why do I do this? I'm not even sure to tell you the truth because I don't fully agree with him; but, why I do it is because he's a great writer.

"I brought something to read and I hope he doesn't mind but it's part of a review that he wrote for one of my favorite films, which is Army of Shadows: 'Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows is about members of the French Resistance who persist in the face of despair. Rarely has a film shown so truly that place in the heart where hope lives with fatalism. It is not a film about daring raids and exploding trains, but about cold, hungry, desperate men and women who move invisibly through the Nazi occupation of France. Their army is indeed made of shadows: They use false names, they have no addresses, they can be betrayed in an instant by a traitor or an accident. They know they will probably die. This is not a war film. It is about a state of mind. ...[A]bout the war within the minds of Resistance members, who must live with constant fear, persist in the face of futility, accept the deaths of their comrades and expect no reward, except the knowledge that they are doing the right thing. ...Their immediate commander is Philippe Gerbier, played by Lino Ventura with a hawk nose and physical bulk, introspection and implacable determination. To overact for Ventura would be an embarrassment.' That's like the greatest line I've ever heard: 'To overact for Ventura would be an embarrassment.' People forget that Roger is a very funny writer as well as a smart one. I know that's known without my reading that.

"I often times read things he's written and take on a new appreciation for something I've seen, and watch it again, and learn something. Anyway, I'm so socially retarded that I don't think I've ever become friends with Roger in the traditional sense. I don't know him very well personally so I don't have very many anecdotes to share. I had dinner with Roger and Chaz once, but Malkovich's whole crazy family was there.... He's interviewed me a couple of times. He's had me at Ebertfest. I don't know, part of it's—I guess—that you have to keep a little bit of a professional distance if a guy's reviewing your films as well.

"I first met him at the Telluride Film Festival in 1984 where I had my first film Louie Bluie and I had only been accepted in one other film festival before that; it was down at Filmex, which is now called the L.A. Film Festival. I think 12 people showed up to see the film down there. So I didn't expect much when I went to Telluride; but, one of the people in line to see the film was Roger Ebert, which was a big deal to me. I remember I was in the lobby selling LPs—that sort of dates the whole thing; but, at least they weren't 78s—and they were soundtracks to the film Louie Bluie. Roger wanted to buy a few. He came up and I said, 'Just take a few, man, take some.' He seemed rather put off and rather irritated by that because maybe he thought I was trying to bribe him or something.

"I guess the biggest criticism I have of Roger is that his reviews are often too easy on films, except for my films of course—he could never be too easy on them—but, the guy loves films so much that it's almost contagious. He's open, he's smart, he's thoughtful, he's always very clear, and he's got a really good heart and—like I said—he's really funny, which is hard to do as a writer. He manages to make you think critically without making it seem like homework. God knows the world needs more people thinking critically these days about a lot of things.

"Finally, I'm going to tell a short story for Roger's benefit that he's never heard and that probably most of you have never heard. I don't tell many people this; but, I get a kick out of it so what the hell? When I made my film Crumb years ago, my executive producer Lynn O'Donnell suggested that we have a few informal test screenings before we locked picture. She wanted some feedback from an audience and so she got about 200 people to come and she handed the audience survey cards. They would ask you things like: What do you like most about the film? Do you like this? Is it too long? Too short? That sort of thing. After the screening was over, I realized it hadn't gone very well and so I went up to Lynn and I said, 'You know what? Let me take those cards home with me and read them over tonight and I'll give them back to you tomorrow morning.' She said, 'Okay.' So I took them home.

"I was mortified reading the cards because they were unanimously down on the film. The consensus was that I should take Robert Crumb's brothers out of the film, which to me was the whole point of the film. But everyone wanted to go in a more cheery, upbeat direction, and spend most of the time on underground comic books or something, which I had no interest in. So I thought, 'Well, I better take a few of these cards and fill in my own comments to balance this out.' I knew I wasn't going to be able to find any blank cards so I took some Wite-Out and I whited out their comments, then I went down to Kinkos and I Xeroxed about a hundred of these things. I came home and got a bunch of different pens and tried to disguise my handwriting on these cards and wrote, 'Oh, the brothers were great! More of them!'

"Eventually, we had one more screening and I couldn't do that again and, luckily, at that test screening this guy Walter Murch came and everybody felt the same way except him; but, he had enough clout as an Oscar®-winning editor to just say, 'Y'know, the film is great. Just leave it alone.' He went on beyond that to do a free sound mix for me, because we had no money.

"So we locked picture and started submitting it to film festivals and everyone turned us down. Eventually, somehow, the New York Film Festival let us in and it did well there. Roger and his ol' pal
Gene Siskel saw it and they started championing the film on their show. They got it on there three or four times. The first time they did an early review to encourage theaters to actually book the film. Then after that they did it again when it came out to review it. And after that to remind people to go see the film. Eventually, by then all the other critics had gone along and come out for it. Ultimately Roger argued for it at Oscar® time and eventually it made its way onto Roger's list of great films, which was probably a greater thrill for me than winning the Oscar® itself.

"A few years ago Roger did a commentary for the film. The truth of the matter is that Sony Pictures had done a poor transfer the first time they did it and I had been on their case to correct it. Ever since then they sort of made it clear that—if they were going to do that—they wanted me to do a commentary and that's how I could pay them back for all the expense. But I just wasn't comfortable doing a commentary for a film. I think it takes the mystery and the magic out of it and it diminishes the film sometimes if you're not careful. So I was a little reluctant to do it, but I said, 'Y'know, why can't Roger Ebert do it? He could talk about this film. He knows it pretty well.' They said, 'Okay. That's a great suggestion.' So they called Roger and Roger agreed to do it and I said, 'Great! I'm off the hook.' And they said, 'No. You have to do it as a conversation with Roger.' So Roger came and we did this commentary and I tried to sit there the whole time and not say anything. I let him talk. I later found out they had used a lot of his voice from that DVD commentary to help restore his computer voice, which was great.

"Anyway, it's been my greatest hope and fondest joy to talk about Mr. Ebert here. Again, I'm glad he's been given this award. He truly deserves it."

Errol Morris

"It's an honor for me to be here tonight. Roger Ebert has given out so many awards to so many filmmakers, it's nice to be part of giving him an award this time around. Anybody who's done this long enough knows that there are two, three, four people who have made an extraordinary difference in their careers for many many many reasons. For me, Roger is most certainly one of those people. He champions unlikely films. His own film festival is the perfect example of this. It's my perfect trophy, by the way, the thumbs up. ...It's something I'm very very proud of, although I was disappointed to find out it was not Roger's thumb.

"I had made my first film Gates of Heaven. I think this is true many many films later, you don't really know if they're good or bad. You really depend on someone to tell you that they're not as bad as you might think and, in fact, they might be good! For me, very early in my career Roger Ebert—because my film went to the New York Film Festival; I was really lucky to be accepted—but, there was a newspaper strike that year in New York so no one read about the film. And then out of seemingly nowhere these reviews appeared on television and in the newspaper from Roger and Gene Siskel, almost as if he would not give up. In fact, he hasn't given up—I think it's now something like 30 years—his obsession with this film and other films I've made. I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.

"What do you hope for when you make a film? That someone out there will appreciate it, perhaps see it in a kindly light, or maybe see things in it that you saw in it, or maybe even see things in it that you never even noticed. It's truly a blessing and Roger has certainly played that role in my life over the years. For that alone—aside from all the great writing and the great criticism—I am grateful.

"It also occurred to me—I will be brief—that there's something very odd about this man. He's not really just a film critic. He's also an icon, quite clearly. I remember when I first met him—I believe I first met him at the Cannes Film Festival years and years ago—I was told, 'Y'know, Roger always writes about his experiences at Cannes' and I read the one from that year. I remember saying to my wife at the time, 'This guy writes really really well.' And it's absolutely true. He's an extraordinary writer. If I call him 'kind', it seems like it's the wrong way to put it; but, he's an enthusiast and a person who is very much a person of conviction....

"So it's an enormous privilege for me to be here. He means—and continues to be—a lot to me. He's mastered every form of this sort of thing: as a writer, as a newspaper man, as a television personality, now as a blogger, and I'm sure that—if in the future there is a new kind of media that is developed—he will master that as well."

Jason Reitman

"Terry, I have one word of advice for when you're in a movie theater and they are laughing at the thing that's not funny. It's something I do when my wife drags me to a horrible romantic comedy. You just have to laugh three times as loud and talk about what's happening on the screen: 'Oh my God! She doesn't know that he's already in the bathroom!' And just get bigger and bigger and bigger. You can own that film.

"It's hard to give context for the life of Roger Ebert when it is he who has given us all context. He is America's critic. He's one of the few people who comprises our cinematic voice of record. He is ... 'The Thumb.' It's almost hard to come up with what we're supposed to say. Roger's name alone stands for his great writing, his criticism, all his contributions that have lived so far beyond them. One would think one could say, 'Now the Mel Novikoff Award goes to Roger Ebert' and that would be it.

"A few times a year Roger will choose a film, sometimes a studio release, but more often a film on the fringe, something small that was made for all the right reasons; something that moves him, and he will blow wind into the tiny sails of this film and give it a life that otherwise would be unimaginable. I'm not the first person to talk about this. I realize everybody's actually talking about this. I have personally experienced it. I remember arriving at the Toronto Film Festival with this tiny movie about teenage pregnancy starring an unknown Canadian actress named Ellen Page that I really thought, 'This will be a festival movie and it will not be seen otherwise.' I remember when the movie ended and people began to clap, I saw Roger—he was actually seated a few seats away from me—and he nodded to me. It was an extraordinary thing! The next morning he had already started talking about the film. He shone a spotlight on it. He gave people a reason to pay attention to it and by the end of the week I got a call saying that Roger would actually like to sit down and talk to me about the film. I was terrified but knew it was going to be a thing I was going to cherish for the rest of my life, and it was. I have no doubt that Roger is one of the very few reasons why people know the name Juno.

"There is a joy for Roger even when he doesn't like a film. I'm sorry in advance for this but here is a quote from [a review of]
a movie that will go nameless: 'I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it.'—Errol, you're right, he's a great writer!—'Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.' Here's the thing: even in this review, I know how much Roger loves movies. I know how much he thinks of them, how much he wants from them, what he expects from them, because these are the same things that I look to movies for. I can't quite put a finger on it but there's something about many film critics and the way they write that makes me think they actually hate movies.

"There's an enthusiasm in Roger's writing that can't be mistaken for anything else but joy. He's passionate and cannot be silenced. He's America's best friend who won't stop nagging you until you've seen this new film. Nowhere is this more evident than on Twitter. I know teenage girls that tweet less than Roger Ebert. You could put Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears, and the entire staff of Ain't It Cool News and /Film together and not tweet as much as Roger Ebert. He tweets about movies. He tweets about politics. He tweets jokes. Yesterday he retweeted the following Twitter user named Superstanos who wrote: 'I just spent 20 minutes writing WU TANG into a lab table. This is why I go to school y'all.' The Roger Ebert Twitter feed is one of the best publications we have running. I don't mean this sarcastically. It's awesome. It's political. It's daring. It's funny. It's self-effacing. It's everything that I love about his writing. It rails against Sarah Palin. It's even about the artfulness of video games.

"He has somehow found yet another medium and a way to share what he thinks is special. This is the passion I associate with this great man who I was introduced to watching At the Movies and who I was fortunate enough to meet when I was a 20-year-old short film maker at the Toronto Festival. I introduced myself. I had no idea that as a writer he would change my life. His instinct to write and share is one thing, but then he wants you to experience what he has experienced, to feel what he has felt. It's an instinct to give and he gives so much. And so there's really only one thing left to say: thank you. Roger, thank you for everything you have done for my career. And thank you for everything you have done for cinema. I cannot imagine a more deserved honor."

Philip Kaufman

"Rose and I left Chicago during the great blizzard of '66 with our little son Peter. We'd done a couple of low budget independent films in Chicago but the films gave no return to the investors, money dried up, and Rose said it was time to head back to San Francisco: always our city of succor. We'd become best friends with Nelson Algren and he came to the airport to see us off. He started to tell us it would be lonely in Chicago without us. Nelson, as you know, wrote The Man With the Golden Arm. At that very time, maybe at that same moment that we were hugging Algren on our way out of Chicago, a bright, tough young kid was just making his way into Chicago. I like to think he took our place. He became a friend of Algren's. And Studs Terkel. And the great Mike Royko. In time he would come to be known as the Kid With the Golden Thumb. Everything you've read by this kid Ebert over all these years should be taken in the context of his being in the tradition of these Chicago guys: tough, give 'em hell, not compromising, no bullshit, tell it like it is, compassionate writers. Like them, Ebert spoke from his heart, spoke against the big boys, championed the little man against small-minded bullies. He told us the truth according to Ebert and—like Mike Royko—he could say with all humility: 'I may be wrong ... but I doubt it.'

"Once, Roger called and woke me up at about six in the morning. Rose and I had made Henry & June and by now Peter was our producer. The Ratings Board had dropped the dreaded 'X' on the film, which meant essentially that it couldn't be distributed. They demanded that I make some cuts. 'Why should I?' I said, 'You guys don't give an "X" rating when a breast is mutilated or blown away; you only give one when a naked breast is caressed. Besides, I applied the same standards I did in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and you gave that an "R" rating.' They said, 'We should have given that film an "X" too.' At which point I might have used the word fuck. They told me I could not use 'the F word' with them and that cemented the 'X' rating.

"I was going to fly to Washington that very day with a big-time lawyer to take on the system and that's the morning Roger called me and woke me up. Roger had been fighting the same fight with the rating system for years and he called us to tell us that the Ratings Board had backed down and that—because we had challenged them and Roger had led the forces of change—they were finally coming up with a new rating: NC17. This was the first I had heard of it. Roger had the news before anyone else. Good news. We felt great at the time. We thought everything had changed. Now, in America we could see films that were—as Rose used to say—'not for children of all ages.' But pretty quickly the powers-that-be found a way to make the NC-17 become the new 'X' and today studios will no longer make or distribute a NC-17 film; but, that's another story. The point of this story is that no one has fought harder or longer or with more enthusiasm than Roger Ebert for justice and fairness and good movies. He's fought for intelligence in movies and, at the same time, he's fought for fun, for sex, beauty, humanity and did I mention sex? In San Francisco, Roger Ebert's our kind of guy.

"Roger and I have both been lucky to find great loves in our lives who stood by us through thick and thin, who had our backs, at the same time led us, who were our partners. I wouldn't be here today if not for Rose and Roger wouldn't be here if not for Chaz. Chaz and Roger, I wanted to tell you a little story about Rose. I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago. Rose and I went to see a film at the Hyde Park Theatre. One of us liked the film and the other one didn't. I've forgotten who felt what. I've even forgotten the name of the film. But I do remember that—in the heat of our passionate disagreement—Rose hauled off and punched me in the face. ...A couple of hours later after thinking things over in some of the local bars, I decided, 'Who needs this shit?' I staggered back to our one and a half room basement apartment on Blackstone ready to end our relationship. Rose had bolted the damn door. I was locked out on a cold, windy Chicago night. I walked around to the alley and found a window that was slightly open. This was the window to the tiny bedroom. As I crawled through the window onto the bed, Rose grabbed me and wrapped herself around me. Tears were all over her face. She whispered, 'Enough of this crap. Let's make our own films. Let's make our own films.'

"We stayed in that bed for days and talked through those days and every night that followed about everything; a lot about films. Our conversation went on for the next 50 years. We never stopped talking. [At this moment grief overwhelmed Kaufman and he found it difficult to speak. Ebert reached out his hand to him.] It's tough being here because Rose and I saw hundreds of movies in this theater. We saw many with Mel. We loved this theater. I thought I could get through this more easily; but, anyway, Rose—as anyone who knew her can attest—never stopped telling me or anyone exactly what she thought. She was fearless and brave as hell, like Roger. As I said, I wouldn't have the honor of being up here on stage with Roger and Chaz if not for Rose.

"I just wanted to say, Roger: thanks for always keeping the bedroom window slightly open. Thanks for encouraging me and these wonderful directors up here and thousands of aspiring filmmakers all over the world to make our own films. Now, as one Chicagoan who has found his home here in San Francisco to another Chicagoan who will always have a second home here, I'd like to present you with a couple of things."

At this juncture Kaufman read aloud Mayor Gavin Newsom's proclamation of May 1, 2010 as Roger Ebert Day in San Francisco and handed Ebert the Mel Novikoff Award.

Cross-published on
Twitch. Introductory photograph of Ebert and friends in front of the Castro Theatre marquee courtesy of Pamela Gentile and the San Francisco Film Society.

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